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2004 BMW 1 Series: First drive

2004-09-08 07:47

John Oxley

Possessing all the quality, dynamic poise, and sheer excitement that makes BMW an icon in the marketplace, the 1 Series comes into SA in four distinct models - with more likely to follow later - although the 120i will be the first available at dealerships.

The rest of the range - 116i, 118i and 120d - is only expected from early next year.

I drove both the 6-speed manual and its 6-speed Steptronic stablemate, and I can tell you the cars are every bit BMW.

They're taut, fast, and smooth, swallowing up the roughest tar roads with ease as we stomped our mark on the Eastern Cape.

What's more, this is one BMW design you won't find hard on the eye - pictures don't do the car justice.

The 1 Series doesn't so much squat on the road as dominate it. It's longer than your average front-wheel-drive hatchback, courtesy of a long wheelbase and a long nose, but this only serves to accentuate its powerful presence.


We discussed the lineup and features in our story on Monday but to reiterate, here's the lineup:

  • BMW 116i (1.6-litre) with 85 kW; Double VANOS. R190 000
  • BMW 118i (2.0-litre) with 95 kW, Double VANOS and VALVETRONIC. R200 000
  • BMW 120i (2.0-litre) with 110 kW, Double VANOS and VALVETRONIC. R215 000
  • BMW 120d with 115 kW, VNT turbocharger with intercooler. R235 000

The 120i and 120d come with a 6-speed manual gearbox (five-speed for the 116i and 118i) or six-speed automatic transmission with Steptronic (for 118i, 120i and 120d only).

First drive

The car is easy to get into for front seat passengers, and the seats are comfy and easy to adjust, with manual height and reach complemented by height and reach adjustment of the steering column, allowing a near-perfect driving position to be attained.

You open the car using an electronic "bleeper" and this is then placed into a special slot on the dashboard to activate the engine, which is then started (and stopped) using a pushbotton on the dash.

The interior is well-designed and not nearly as bland as other recent BMW designs, and there's lots of metallic-look trim on the dashboard and doors.

Both front and rear doors open wide, and the big hatch opens almost 2 metres tall to allow easy access to the roomy boot area.

In standard seating positions the boot holds 360 litres of luggage, and it's a handy shape that's easily accessible.

But you can also fold the seats forward, with a 60/40 split, to enlarge the carrying capacity to ober 1 000 litres.

Interior space is good back and front, but we must confess to battling a bit to get in and out of the back seat. There's enough legroom once you're in (just) but I'm only average height, and if the driver is a big guy the front seat almost touches the rear one.

The biggest problem, though, is getting your feet out, especially if you're wearing the big shoes that are all the rage these days - and if the door isn't fully opened, as often happens in parking lots.

Really, the back seats are more suited to agile teenagers than larger mortals.

On the road

However, any reservations you might have disappear once you start the engine.

The 2-litre motor fitted in the 120i has a displacement of 1 995 cc, with variable valve timing incorporating VANOS variable camshaft control on both the intake and exhaust sides, as well as VALVETRONIC valve lift to produce an impressive 110 kW at 6 200 r/min. Maximum torque of 200 Nm is obtained at 3 600 r/min.

The 120i sprints from 0-100 km/h in just 8.7 seconds, while top speed is an impressive 217 km/h.

Claimed average fuel consumption is 7.4 litres/100 km.

On the road this translates into a remarkably smooth drive. Power is available instantly, and the auto gearbox is particular impresses with its instantaneous response and lack of any jerkiness.

Apart from a class-leading six ratios, it also has a sport mode and sequential manual operation.

As to be expected the 6-speed manual gearbox is slippery-smooth, with superb ratios.

Handling is excellent.

Rear-wheel-drive means you can take the car hard into a corner without worrying about the car ploughing on in understeer, while a 50/50 weight distribution translates into superb balance and that "seat of the pants" driving feel you only usually get from a sports car.

And at the same time it absorbs bumps and thumps in a way that, for instance, the Volkswagen Golf is not able to do.


The 120i in standard trim comes well equipped, with keyless entry, aircon, elelectric windows and mirrors, plus a front loader CD/radio audio system, as well as ABS brakes (with EBD), DSC stability control and traction control all standard.

And you can beek up the specification to your hearts content, adding such items as satellite navigation, Bluetooth telephone system, bi-Xenon headlights, park distance control - the list is too long to include here..

But the extras are also costly - rainsensing windscreen wipers, for instance, which are standard on even the cheapest French cars, cost R1 000 extra on the 1 Series.

One thing you won't find is a spare wheel. All the cars come with runflat tyres, but if you shred your runflat you CAN replace it with an ordinary tyre to get you home.

Another moot point is fuel tank capacity. To ensure enough space in the back this is limited to just 50 litres - which meant we had to take a refuel stop during our test drive.

Summing up

The 1 Series pricing pits it straight against its main opposition in what BMW calls the "premium hatch" market, particularly the Audi A3 and Alfa 147.

However marketing boss Andrew Kirby concedes that it is more likely the top end of the Golf 5 market that will be most likely affected, and it is here he expects big conquest sales.

He's looking to sell only 3 000 cars a year, most of which are expected to be the value-for-money 180i, which, contrary to its nomenclature, comes with a 95 kW 2-litre motor coupled with either a 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic gearbox.

My guess is that BMW will see a lot more than 3 000 cars roaring out of the showrooms.

By the way, Kirby mentioned that the car has been awarded a 5-star rating in the Euro NCAP test series. Euro NCAP has not yet announced this, but it's expected in November.

Certainly the car has all the necessary airbags and a very strong bodyshell.

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